How to Avoid Chasing Empty Ambitions
Daedalus warns his son as he’s about to fly to pay attention and be mindful of his environment, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings nor the sun’s heat melt them.
Sadly, out of excitement and over-ambition, Icarus ignores his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun; when the wax in his wings melted he tumbled out of the sky. Down Icarus plunged into the sea, and indeed into death.
The story of Icarus is often used to signify the dangers of over-ambition, otherwise known by psychoanalysts as Icarus Complex (often characterized by attention-seeking or admiration-seeking narcissistic behaviors.)
To be clear, I don't think being ambitious itself is a bad thing. In fact, it’s in striving to do more that we discover more about ourselves and become better in the process. But there’s a kind of ambition that leads to a mindless and irrational pursuit. One that we engage in because without its reward, we don’t feel complete.
In his TED talk, the Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté talked about some of the tyrannical figures in history who identified too much with the power they wielded.
From Stalin, Hitler to Alexander the Great, Dr. Gabor explained how these people possessed some form of internal deficiency that led to them being overly ambitious and as a result, becoming power drunk. As he did some research and looked into them more closely, he observed:
“Physically, they were all very small people… they came from outsiders, not part of the major population — Stalin was a Georgian, not a Russman; Napoleon was a Corsican, not a French man; Alexander was a Macedonian, not a Greek, and Hitler was an Austrian, not a German — as a result, they had a real sense of insecurity and they needed the power to feel okay in themselves.”
Being a physician, Dr. Gabor had dealt with lots of cases concerning different forms of addiction and one thing common to these people aside from the fact that they usually have troubled childhoods is that, as he said in his TED talk, “there’s usually an emptiness that they try to feel from the outside.”
Now, this isn’t an article about addiction, but addicts are a sort of extreme version of a person who is mindlessly pursuing success because without it they don’t feel complete. The kind of ambition that leads to emptiness is one born from insecurity.
When we try to feel an internal lack with something from the outside, through accomplishments, we never get satisfied. And as the transformational coach and author of Rising to Power, Ron Carucci, put it in his piece about moderating ambition, published in Harvard Business Review,
“When those desires become insatiable, attaining those rewards only enlarges, not satisfies, the appetite for them...”
The Right Kind of Ambition
There’s usually a subtle difference between the right kind of ambition and the one that only enlarges our appetite for more. In fact, the difference can be so subtle that some of us only realize it at the point of mental breakdown; when we begin to notice that our achievements don’t just feel unrewarding, but also come with a sense of emptiness.
So how do we avoid the kind of ambition that leads to emptiness? Check your motivation.
Here’s the thing: Ambition should come from our desire to maximize our potential and be a better version of ourselves. When the ambition is healthy, we can have fun with the process, doing what we can with what we have; it’s not born from insecurity or the fear of not being enough. It’s just our attempt to experience what we are really capable of.
Unhealthy ambition, on the other hand, isn’t just an attempt to be better, it’s a projection of a sense of lack and insecurity. It’s our attempt to look for respect, love, attention, validation, security, from our achievements; it stems from a feeling of insufficiency. As the clinical psychologist Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. wrote in her article on Emptiness in PsychCentral,
“Emptiness might stem from slowly abandoning ourselves, not listening to our own hopes and desires. You might abandon yourself unintentionally or unknowingly because you’re striving for perfection or others’ approval.”
Unhealthy ambition makes us feel empty because it doesn’t find contentment from just improving, it wants to surpass everyone. As a result, every win is only a call to do more because there will always be someone better.
Ambition Beyond Insecurity
An ambition beyond insecurity starts with the awareness that we are enough. That true love, respect, and admiration aren’t dependent only on our achievements, but on who we are, on our individuality, and the traits and virtues we possess as individuals.
Furthermore, we must learn to compare ourselves to who we used to be, not who someone else is. We stop comparing, imitating, and envying because we feel good enough and worthy of respect, love, and attention, without having to first conquer the world.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” said Carl Gustov Jung. Before we set off on our quest to achieve great things, we must first obtain balance by looking inward and giving ourselves the love and respect that we deserve. As Budda famously said,
“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
When we are inwardly full, we won’t lose control of our ambition. Rather, it will be a fun ride; it becomes a journey of self-discovery. We can be happy for someone else’s success because their progress isn’t a threat to our self-esteem. The right kind of ambition makes us better people.
“What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs… genuine needs that require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance and approval of others.” — Dr. Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts